likability vs technical caliber

Q: Out of 10 colleagues in your team, suppose “Beth” is the 2rd most likable and “Yen” the 2nd least likable. How serious is the gap in their likability? Is Yen really that unpopular?

Perhaps Not. If you rank the 10 people in your own team, the 2nd least likable person (the “Yen” in my illustration) is probably not bad. Out of 10 colleagues, it’s rare to find a single person clearly nasty, or unpleasant. You may find the 6th through the 10th are all reasonable teammates and you have a hard time ranking them (but how about at a time of bonus/layoff ? ) If you look at the last ranked colleague (, perhaps he has a strong personality/self-centeredness, or she’s always too busy to help you when you need her, or she forgets/ignores your requests, or he is a bit aloof and cocky and not that warm, or she’s too loud, or he’s too nice with the opposite sex, or she’s working too hard and makes you look lazy, or he has less humor than others …

(By the way, for focus and clarity, i will disregard the important fact that any measurement used in such ranking is extremely vague. )

Another ambiguity with likability is, the colleague you rank in the 2nd half may be my favorite types of personality. Clearly, we should both remove personal “恩怨” — someone who helped me a lot i may not like, but someone who made me a lot of trouble i may find quite amicable and fun to be around.

Another ambiguity is cultural boundary. The “nice” personality in one culture is usually considered polite and welcome (probably not charming/endearing) in another, but some 2nd-half kind of professional guy in India is quite possibly viewed with admiration and attractiveness by some Europeans, for example. Note there are infinite types of 2nd-half personalities!

Another ambiguity — I may agree with you this guy is nice and polite, but in a secret ballot I just won’t put him in the first half of likability. Nevertheless I may elect someone not so nice because she accepts ME better and makes ME comfortable. Likability is something personal to ME, just like clothing.

In a twist beyond explanation, I may never invite the nicest colleague for lunch (perhaps he’s too perfect and way above me), but I do share lunch with a lot of colleagues less than “perfectly likable” — I call it rapport.

Likability becomes serious at review/promotion/bonus/layoff time but i think only the managers’ view counts.
It becomes serious when — you try to transfer internally.
It becomes serious when — you are seen as a go-to person, a helpful teammate — reputation. People would mention your name when they need or received (non-technical) help.
It becomes serious when — you need a massive help from someone.
It becomes serious when — you organize an event.
It becomes serious when — you ask people for a character reference.
If a colleague confides in you, that’s a sign of your likability. Does it buy you anything?

Now consider technical caliber of engineers. The effectiveness, personal contribution and value-add of the 2nd decile vs 2nd last decile is more significant and visible. The difference can be objectively assessed. A mediocre engineer vs an insightful or fast-learning or quality-conscious or clear-thinking or systematic engineer — real difference. It shows in the work.

That partly explains why the very nice people I know often make slow progress professionally, but “mad scientists” often move up on their strength of technical caliber. My view is biased. Unlike me, many colleagues believe it’s more important who you know than what you know.

How about business analysts, accountants, professional traders, researchers and salespeople?


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